February 25, 2019
The Two Faces of Malaysia
by Dr.Lim Teck Ghee
“We are a nation built more on falsehoods, half-truths, lies and silences than on truth, veracity, honesty and candor ”
Recently Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz in a column on “The Toothless Watchdog Syndrome” decried those in authority who regard public funds and assets as their private chattels and the failure of those entrusted to monitor, supervise and report – board members for example – to blow the whistle.
The opinion piece she penned is too little too late in checking the cancer of corruption which has already spread far and wide. Moreover, it is not only board members in charge of public funds that we should direct our attention to.
It is the spectrum of the country’s elite – in politics, business, the civil service, academia, media, cultural institutions and now under the spotlight, our judiciary – who have been engaged – even if not in corrupt activity directly – in actively building the mountain of fabrication and deception (through initiation, collaboration or silent consent) which forms an important – perhaps the most important – part of the topography and environment of Malaysian society today.
Let’s look more closely at this mountain which we have to collectively climb if we are to come close to becoming that progressive and modern society which simplistic indicators such as per capita income, GDP, standard of living, etc do not pay attention to or adequately express.
In the sixty years after Merdeka we have grown by leaps and bounds in the quantitative measurements of progress and development. We have a burgeoning middle class; our upper class is at a level which is world standard; there has been education for the masses; most families have at least a college or university graduate among its members and so on.
But the sorry truth remains.
The mountain exists because we are a nation of people enamoured of titles; easily impressed by positions and status; where switching parties is not only legitimate but is seen as praiseworthy; where jump the queue, angkat and bodek (in the local terminology) and grovelling are common place; where falsified cvs; plagiarized thesis and purchased credentials have become the norm. Where deadly silence, bureaucratic gobbledygook, feigned ignorance, half truths and lies have become second nature in official circles.
This seems to be a paradox given the tremendous growth in temples, churches, mosques and other symbols and institutions of religious piety, and the emphasis by some of our topmost political leaders in stamping out atheism, secularism and godlessness; and their constant moral hectoring and posturing to captive audiences.
Lies and Their Effect
In a phrase attributed it to the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
Others have categorized lies into more elaborate groupings.
According to American radio host Dawson McAllister, there are eight types of lies including white lies; broken promises; plagiarism; the lie of fabrication; the bold faced lie; lying in exaggeration; lies of deception; and compulsive lying.
To this, we may want to add the lie of minimisation which is prevalent here and involves attempts to distort the truth through arguments such as “it was not during my watch or my responsibility” in an attempt to take the spotlight away from them or to minimise the damage of what has been done.
It will be interesting to apply this or any other typology to the political and cultural setting here, where, according to Rafidah, people either are busy “scratching each other’s backs” or “fear to comment, raise the alarm and report, or are too polite to ruffle feathers”.
Although we may disagree on the different types of lies and where they may be most practiced, there is general agreement of the effect of repeated lying. Social scientists have established that repeated lying especially by officials or those regarded as reliable sources results in what is known as the validity effect, illusory truth effect or the reiteration effect.
The illusory truth effect has been found to play a significant role in fields as disparate as business and advertising, political propaganda and religious instruction.
In countries with authoritarian or semi-authoritarian systems, the main perpetrators of lies or illusory truths are the government and its supporters. In his classic dystopian work, 1984, George Orwell coined terms such as Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, newspeak and 2+2 =5 to describe the effects of omnipresent government deception, surveillance and propaganda.
We should ponder on how appropriate these phenomena are in our setting. We should also be concerned about the memory hole in which not only mechanisms proliferate for the alteration and disappearance of inconvenient or embarrassing documents, transcripts or other records as part of the attempt to give the impression that something never happened but also individuals such as Pastor Raymond Koh, Amri Che Mat, Joshua and Ruth Hilmy who can mysteriously disappear.
In Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith, the book’s protagonist, who is finally broken by his fear of rats and psychological fear agrees that “two plus two equals five”.
In Malaysia it is not only Big Brother, torture or fear of rats that accounts for the Winston Smith that is found in us but the cult of self-promotion and self-serving denial or rejection of truth independent of ideology and personal reward that has brought us to this dismal point in our history.